When Our Parents Neglected Us to Save the World…

Gone were the days of Zionist summer camps, socialist meetings held every other night and slipping out at 2 a.m. to paint “Free the Rosenbergs” on the sidewalk. It was now the mid-1960s. Bobbi and Stan, a young artistic couple from the Lower East Side, moved to Boston and with a grant from the American Friends Service Committee they started a traveling drama troupe in an old school bus. They called it Caravan Theater. Their first play was about fascism, their second, racism. They’d perform anywhere, in any community that housed them for the night and paid them twenty-five bucks. After a year, they abandoned the bus but kept the troupe.

Bobbi and Stan didn’t plan on children. The first, they illegally aborted. The second and third, Bobbi—scared and unsure—swallowed pills from a bottle that clearly stated: Do not take if pregnant. Her plan didn’t work.

When I try to imagine what it must have been like for my activist parents to suddenly find themselves the guardians of two baby girls, I see a youthful couple, bewildered, asking: Whose kids are these? And more importantly, what can we do with them while we’re off trying to save the world?

I grew up in the basement of a big stone church in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I didn’t spend my childhood in this sanctuary for any God-related reason; my parents were culturally Jewish, and committed atheists. What I was doing was waiting, waiting for my mother and father to finish working so we could finally return home. They never finished working. Firm believers in social change, deeply committed to political activism, my parents spent years trying to convert others to their revolutionary beliefs. Instead of an altar, they used a stage. Instead of a bible, they used scripts. A Methodist minister had invited the traveling theater to call his church home. When my parents moved the troupe in, they brought with them the belief that when there’s something radically wrong with a society, there needs to be a radical change. They also believed that there’s no time like the present to act, and no-one like themselves to do it. This belief, strong in Jewish culture, has historically motivated Jews toward social activism. To paraphrase the great sage, Rabbi Hillel, If not now, when? If not me, who?

In place of children’s bedtime stories, my older sister and I got nightly doses of intense live drama depicting the struggles of people in pain, people pushing for change. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, while the United States was in the midst of social upheaval—the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, struggles for gay and women’s rights—my parents’ plays fiercely, heatedly, enacted these struggles. And sucking our thumbs, dragging around our baby blankets, night after night my sister and I got front row seats.

My appreciation of this proximity, however, came later—years later. It was a time-released appreciation, something that grew the more I was able to distance myself and understand both what I got and what I had to give up in this childhood immersed in my parents’ activism.

Thirty years ago, in 1968, my parents’ theater led some of the earliest feminist activism on the East coast. My mother and father wrote and directed the play “How to Make a Woman.” It was a dramatization of how society shaped and limited women’s lives, and the role men played in this process. The right idea at the right time, the play received rave reviews and catapulted my parents to the front lines of a relatively new initiative called the “female liberation movement.” Along with others around the country, my parents helped churn ripples into a wave, the second wave of American feminism.

I remember—in a foggy, five-year-old kind of way—watching this budding of the women’s movement. That’s because one night something unusual happened. At first the evening seemed like any other: My parents’ play ended; the actors finished bowing; the house lights came on. The mix of Boston professionals, university students and activists who had shifted, coughed and laughed in inky darkness were now, once again, visible. The church smelled of dust, sweat, stale breath.

My mother stood up, clip-board in hand, pencil behind her ear. Bits of red curly hair barely contained in a braid strained to get free. She was making an announcement, but I didn’t pay attention. I was on the floor, scribbling out a crayon masterpiece.

Suddenly there was commotion. Everyone was talking, getting up from their seats, moving in different directions. Two different directions.

I looked up. The audience was doing something I hadn’t seen before. All the men were going one way, into the side room, while all the women were going another way, downstairs.

I rushed up to ask: “Mom, why’s half of everybody going downstairs and half of everybody staying up here?”

“Because we’re going to talk, sweetie-pie,” she said.

There was always lots of talking around my parents. Talking about grown-up things, in big groups, in small groups, in all kinds of groups, but never before in groups divided up this way.

“Talking ’bout what?” I asked.

“About our different lives,” she said.

Today, men’s and women’s discussion groups don’t sound like much. In 1968, they were revolutionary. It was in these groups that women began to compare notes and organize; where they discovered that the bad things that happened to one woman happened to many; where they concluded that the most intimate, personal aspects of their lives were political. Issues like how their husbands treated them, who took care of the kids, who got attention in the bedroom, even how they felt about themselves were, in fact, political. It was an era marked by the embryonic beginning of men’s and women’s consciousness raising. And, starting at age five, I was privy to hearing—night after night—groundbreaking, honest, exploratory discussions of how constricting, how oppressive, gender roles and relations were in America.

Boy, was I bored.

The theater was an interesting mix of quiet concentration and constant motion. Either way, it was hard to get my parents’ attention. During the performances and during the groups, the smallest peep out of me resulted in a cross Shhh! Other times the church filled with the noisy bustle of chairs being pulled together to form circles, or pulled apart and put away. Loud shouts, bells, whistles filled any hollow spaces that weren’t already occupied with sprawling stage props and over-sized puppets with enormous faces and flowing manes of straw. But all this activity was out of my reach. The adults rushing around rarely paused to look down at the little girl squatting, cowgirl style, on the large green stuffed turtle.

I made up imaginary friends, like the family of penguins that lived in my belly, or the bunnies that lived on my fingers. I could sit motionless for hours watching them play, eavesdropping on their conversations. No adult ever mentioned how strange I must have looked staring into space, talking to myself.

Only my patience, not our nights, ended when the performances were over. After the shows were the discussion groups. After the discussion groups my parents held meetings with the actors. Midnight, one a.m., two. The glamour of getting to stay up late had long since passed. My mom’s mantra, repeated over and over each night, was Okay, pumpkin, okay. We’ll go home soon.

Actually, home was often more of the same. For three months at a time we’d lose my father to the attic. In isolation, he endlessly wrote on a big table, growling at all who dared disturb him. Finally he’d emerge from his den of creativity only to bring his finished script to the theater. There, we’d lose him again for another three months as he directed rehearsals and put on his play. My mother was where he wasn’t: at the theater directing when he was writing, and then off somewhere writing when he was directing. Often they would co-direct, creating a near parental drought in our household.

Like everyone, I have a list of pros and cons about growing up with my particular parents. Top of the list, long working hours. And little to no pay. For my sister and me, this translated into a long succession of live-in baby-sitters who flowed in and out of our home. The result: I struggled with a childhood loneliness that was hard to shake. Besides the physical absence of my parents, another hurt I experienced was the early realization that there was no way I could compete. No matter how difficult my math homework, no matter how badly I scraped my knee, I knew I would never be as important as the struggles to which my parents committed their lives.

Plenty of activists, of course, successfully juggle both work and family lives. And my parents did too, later. It wasn’t until I turned twenty that my parents finally understood. That was when they began exploring their own childhood hurts that had kept them from connecting to the needs of their kids. The pain of an abusive, schizophrenic mother on one side. An absentee father and physically combative brother on the other. It became clear: Given their own childhoods, my parents had done the very best they could. When my parents finally did shift their priorities my sister and I were put at the top. The love, time and attention were new, and were great. It helped to make our present-day relationship one of real closeness and mutual support. My parents have become some of my best friends.

Nonetheless, I doggedly dragged my childhood hurts into adulthood. To this day I have a hard time remembering I am important to my family, friends and lovers. Sometimes I feel I have to do something spectacular to ensure a position of import in their lives. Linked to this is the (erroneous) belief that my self-worth is tied to making a difference in the world. Finally, to conclude this list of psychological baggage I carry: As if I were still that young girl at the theater, I sometimes feel I can never get enough attention or appreciation. Early deprivation left me with a constant hunger. It was this dynamic that led me, as a teen, to stay too long in an abusive relationship. At least I was his priority.

But even with this laundry list of complaints, I could never say the cost of being the child of activists outweighed the gains. From the earliest I can remember my parents were always full, intense human beings. They bubbled, crackled, with verve. They had ideas and they acted on them. They had energy and they used it. When they finally sat down, it was to plan their next move. They believed a person, once conscious of truths and injustices, would want to join the struggle. This led them to lead. They were always in front of groups talking, directing, teaching—initiating action.

When I was a child, I had no doubt that my parents had special powers. What they said, people did. When they said the theater lights should go down, they went down. When they told large groups to pull their chairs into a circle and talk, a circle was formed and people talked. I saw my parents leading all the time. I was sure whatever they set out to do, it would be done. With my parents around I was certain: the oppression of women would be long gone by the time I was grown up—say by 1974, when I’d be 12.

Much of their leadership was in the fight for women’s and men’s liberation. And they didn’t just profess this dogma. My mother did half the play-writing, half the directing. My father did half the cooking, half the housework. My mother discussed politics while she changed the car oil. My father discussed his feelings while he scrubbed the toilet. What role models to grow up with! What ideals to internalize as a child! And I did internalize them, very early on.

I was a girl with a distinct sense of empowerment. Not only was I keenly aware of the long list of oppressed peoples in the world, but I was also aware that it was within my power to act and change things.

It was feminism that I embraced when I was a child. Growing up in my family, I experienced a perplexing dichotomy—a world steeped in the idealism of second-wave feminism yet still filled with the realities of every day sexism. This keen awareness of what should be versus what actually was helped prompt me to decide, at age ten, that I was not just the daughter of feminist leaders but a girl-feminist in my own right. I passed around Ms. Magazine and Our Bodies Ourselves, lectured fellow students and teachers about language (firefighters, not firemen!), and enrolled my best friend of fifth grade—who was being abused at home—in a self defense course for women (at the time, this was the cutting edge thing in the women’s movement). And as I grew, my activism did too; as a young adult I founded an organization aimed at ending sexist/racist imagery in the media, led workshops on female empowerment and organized training sessions on dismantling all isms.

Well, it is now thirty years since those early consciousness-raising groups in Harvard Square and unfortunately, there is still plenty of sexism in our society. So, I continue to bear the torch my parents carried. As a feminist writer I focus on the details of women’s and girls’ lives. Was I turned off to activism because as a child my driven, Jewish parents were too busy to pay attention to me? No. I was able to separate their activism from their parenting skills, mostly because of the obviousness of the work that needed to be done. This holds true for my sister too, who is now a leader in wildlife conservation. It wasn’t even that I rejected activism and then decided to come back to it. I grew up breathing activism. Tikkun olam—repair of the world—permeated the air in my childhood. To breath anything else would seem foreign.

Rivka Solomon (a pen name) is seeking stories for her book That Takes Ovaries! Send via email (redelson@gis.net) up to 1,000 words of anything you’ve done that was gutsy, audacious, brazen. Include address and phone.

Red Diaper Babies: “Commie Kids” and How McCarthy Scared Them

by Eleanor J. Bader

From its founding in 1919 until 1956, when it began to unravel, the American Communist Party attracted thousands of members. Idealists all, they joined the Party seeking a better way. Lauding the Soviet Union as a model, these activists believed that it was only a matter of time before societies everywhere were transformed.

Whole families were galvanized around the needs of the Party. Many children found their parents’ whirlwind of activity endlessly fascinating. Others, however, felt they were pushed to the side, and their contributions to a new anthology, Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left (University of Illinois Press), are filled with bitterness. While virtually all the contributors selected by editors Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro are proud of their parents’ efforts, the sting of being ignored or belittled persists.

Jeff Lawson, whose screenwriter father was blacklisted in Hollywood, writes: “The communists I grew up with were politically in favor of sharing the wealth, helping the underdog, but in their personal lives were often wrapped up in themselves.”

Rachel Fast Ben-Avi’s entry is similarly poignant. “I am two? Three? Four? The New York Times is spread out before father and me. Father [writer Howard Fast] attacks the paper, combs it for untruths. He reads to me, explains the events of the day, points out distortions, anticommunist propaganda, outright lies. I try my best to understand. Sometimes I challenge him. ‘You’re not listening, Rachel,’ he reprimands. ‘You must listen.'”

These childhood anxieties were exacerbated by McCarthyism. Essay after essay reveals the terror that the “family secret” would be discovered. Indeed, the arrest and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg hit red diaper babies with a singular intensity: “My worst nightmare was that my mother would be taken away as Morton Sobell had been from his children and the Rosenbergs had been from theirs,” writes Miriam Zahler. “If the Rosenbergs were in jail because they passed out leaflets, my mother, who also passed out leaflets, might be arrested, too.”

Some of the contributors write of fleeing to Mexico or Europe to evade red squad inquisitions. Others write of their struggles to retain a progressive political connection outside of the Party, while still others write of their continuing Communist affiliation despite the Party’s decline. All told, Red Diapers runs the gamut, chronicling childhoods loved and hated, parents revered and feared, politics embraced and avoided. The book’s 46 essays are lively and heartfelt. The mix brings forth an intensely moving collection of American histories.